This is a longer version of a short piece published in the Observer, 18 April 2021.
The African-American novelist Zora Neale Hurston’s final work, Seraph on the Suwanee, is set among poor Southern whites. Published in 1948, it’s often dismissed by critics as a “whiteface” novel because the lives and diction of the white characters seem too “black”, as if they were really black people in white masks. Hurston dismissed such criticism. “About the idiom of the book”, she wrote to friend and fellow-novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, “I too thought when I went out to dwell among the poor whites in Dixie County that they were copying us. But I found their colorful speech so general that I began to see that it belonged to them… Just stand around where poor whites work, or around the village stores of Saturday nights & listen & you will hear something.” There was a way of speaking, she adds, that was “common to white and black”.
The debate over Hurston’s novel articulates well the fraught relationship between ideas of “authenticity” and “identity”. Poor whites in the American South are not supposed to speak as they do, because that is “black speak”. If a novel captures their actual speech, it appears inauthentic. The irony is that to be “authentic” to an identity, one must not necessarily be authentic to people’s lives as actually lived.
“Authenticity” and “identity” are both concepts that seem simultaneously indispensable and indefinable. Both are concepts that emerge in the modern world and there is a heap (in fact, far more than a heap) of discussion and debate about their meaning, which I am not going to even begin to address here. Both authenticity and identity are, however, far more embedded in contemporary culture and the relationship between the two is even more difficult to negotiate today than it was when Hurston wrote Seraph on the Suwanee. It is not just that the meanings of both are more fiercely policed. It is also that marks of identity have become like placeholders. It is not the content that matters, just the outward appearance. And having the right outward appearance – the right marks of identity – is what is policed. Hence the constant stream of controversies over “cultural appropriation” or who is authentic enough to engage in some cultural process, or who should be included in “diversity”.
The latest skirmish is over BBC police drama Luther. BBC’s head of diversity, Miranda Wayland, apparently thinks that Idris Elba’s lead character is not “authentic” enough, as he does not eat Caribbean food or have black friends.
There may well be another universe in which Luther shares jerk chicken with black buddies. Whether that Luther would be any more authentic than the Luther in our universe is a moot point. After all, why should Luther consume Caribbean as opposed to West African food? Why can’t black people prefer Italian or Moroccan or Indian or Thai cuisine without losing their “blackness”? And why should Luther’s authenticity be defined solely by his skin colour? Why not his misanthropy, his rage, the fact that he is a policeman? As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush has observed, given that Luther is a policeman, “The character’s social circle is probably the most realistic thing about Luther, as the friends we see him make are people he meets through work”. Bush adds that “part of the joy of Luther lies in it being both high-quality hokey escapism and a drama with a protagonist who is incidentally black.”
In today’s culture, though, it is difficult not to politicise identities. The very perception of identity – white, black, Muslim, gay, trans – is always framed by the social and cultural meaning attributed to that identity. At the same time, what the Luther controversy shows is how defining authenticity through the most trivial marks of identity is itself a mark of our times. One of the ironies of the way in which many talk about diversity today, as I have observed before, is that diversity often seems magically to vanish at the edges of minority communities.
“We take our shape, it is true, within and against that cage of reality bequeathed us at our birth”, James Baldwin observed in his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel”; “and yet it is precisely through our dependence on this reality that we are most endlessly betrayed.” Sometimes, in one of my more cynical moods, I wonder, if Baldwin were still here, whether his authenticity – and indeed his identity – would be questioned, too.